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Do You Want to Develop REAL English Skills? Then Do This...

Posted by Lindsay McMahon on Mon, Jan 14, 2013 @ 08:12 AM

learn real English with language exchange BostonI hope your year is getting off to a great start!

Have you set a goal to improve your English skills this year? If so, maybe one of the ways that you plan to reach your goal is by participating in a language exchange.

I talk a lot about the benefits of language exchanges on this blog because I believe they really do work, but there is one thing you MUST be aware of if you decide to do a weekly language exchange.

I realized on Friday that I am making a big mistake in my own English-Spanish language exchange and I want to share it with you so that you don't make the same mistake.

What's the mistake that I am making and how can you avoid it? Read today's article to find out!



It all started a few years ago


I was incredibly lucky to find Pedro, my language exchange partner, about 2 years ago when I first moved to Boston. We decided to start meeting every Friday to practice English for an hour and Spanish for an hour.

After a few months of meeting regularly, I was starting to feel incredibly lucky!

I thought my biggest challenge with my language exchange would be my partner canceling all of the time or just not showing up or something like that. But no, that didn't happen. Pedro is reliable, kind, and trustworthy. In fact, we became good friends.



On Friday I realized that we have a problem

 describe the imageAs we sat down in one of our usual cafes this past Friday, we worked on a focused task for the first time in a while. I had to translate some questions from English to Spanish for a project that I am working on. He had to answer the questions correctly in English before they got translated to Spanish.

I found this task disturbingly hard! There were verbs that I knew a year ago and didn't know anymore. There were verbs that I had never learned and wondered why I hadn't learned them. There were nouns and adjectives that were sitting on the tip of my tongue but I couldn't get them out. I sipped my coffee and hoped that the problem was a mid-afternoon lull and not my brain getting lazy and cloudy when it comes to Spanish.

The difference between this past Friday's language exchange and the language exchange sessions we've been having every week is that this time we did more than general, casual conversation. We have been "chatting" in Spanish every week for an hour. It has been comfortable, friendly, and relaxing. I have not wanted to push too hard at 3pm on a Friday. In other words, I have been l-a-z-y! But guess what? Maintaining or learning a language leaves no room for laziness!



Don't make the mistake that I have been making


wrong English learning methodsWhen you do a weekly language exchange, it is not enough to just talk to the person in English!

The mistake that I have made is common because it's easy to fool yourself into thinking that you are getting better just because you are dedicating time to practicing.

You need to set up focused tasks and stick to them.

Use a variety of materials and try to target as many different skills as you can including listening, reading, writing and speaking.



A few ideas to get you focused


advice on language exchanges boston

  • Translate a news story: Pick up a newspaper in your native language on your way to your language exchange. You might have to look online. If you are an intermediate learner, stick with short articles. When it is your turn to practice English (in a language exchange you usually split the time between English and your native language), choose the most interesting article and translate it into English. Let your exchange partner listen and correct you and don't be afraid to use a dictionary if you must, but try to find the meaning of the word from the context before reaching for the dictionary.


  • Describe a movie: Choose a recent movie or play that you saw and describe it to your partner in English. Give as much detail as possible about the characters, the setting, the plot, what happened in the end, etc. Push yourself to use new vocabulary words. Ask your partner to correct your English as soon as he or she hears a mistake.


  •  Check out activities that have already been prepared: Visit My Language Exchange. Go to the top of the page and click the dropdown menu that says "Lesson Plans." Here you can select material to bring to your exchange and create conversation topics that will add structure to your exchange. Some topics including describing things that could go wrong at a dinner party or a guessing game about an author or book.


  • Get conversation questions from TOEFL prep sites: Even if you aren't preparing for the TOEFL, there's no reason you can't use the free materials online for your other English goals. Since there is a speaking portion of the TOEFL where students have to respond to opinion questions, there are tons of practice questions available online that can help guide your language exchange conversations. Here are 40 new questions for the internet- based TOEFL test.



I am making a change, how about you?


So Pedro and I have decided that starting next week, our language exchange will be different. We will focus more, we will use newspapers to translate between Spanish and English. We will challenge ourselves more and most importantly, we will not continue to make "small talk" about the same five conversation topics that we have been discussing for the past two years!

Remember, you are the only one who really knows when you are or are not challenging yourself enough. So if your story sounds like mine, start figuring out a better way so that you can meet your 2013 English goals and develop real English skills!


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Photo Credits: waferboard, khrawlings, CarbonNYC


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